April 24, 2016


The Real Story of How Amazon Built the Echo : The talking speaker started as part of a secret augmented-reality project and ended up as a surprise hit. (Joshua Brustein, April 19, 2016, Bloomberg)

Weeks before the speaker was set to ship, the dissidents confronted Bezos. He was amenable to changes: The device would be called the Echo, and its wake word would be "Alexa." Users can now choose to change it to "Amazon" or "Echo" if they want. The Amazon Flash boxes were destroyed, and the first round of speakers was shipped off in November.

In a gadget landscape dominated by rectangular touchscreens, the Echo is something different. The speaker is a screenless cylinder, just over 9 inches tall and 3.25 inches in diameter. It can play music, and also answer basic household questions like how many teaspoons there are in a cup. The only way to interact with the Echo is to talk to it. It's always listening for its wake word.

When it launched, Amazon's critics jumped to mock the company. Some called it a useless gimmick; others pointed to it as evidence of Amazon's Orwellian tendencies. Then something weird happened: People decided they loved it. Amazon never releases data about how its products are selling, but Consumer Intelligence Research Partners issued a report this month saying that Amazon had sold more than 3 million devices, with 1 million of those sales happening during the 2015 holiday season. About 35,000 people have reviewed the speaker on Amazon.com, with an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5.

Perhaps even more important to Amazon is how dozens of independent developers are writing apps that work with the speaker's voice controls. You can use Alexa to turn off the lights, ask it how much gas is left in your car, or order a pizza. This is doubly surprising given how far behind Apple and Google the company was in the area of voice control when it started. The Echo may have seemed like a superfluous toy at first, but it now looks like a way for Amazon to become the default choice in a whole new era in the way people interact with computers and the Internet.

"We want to be a large company that's also an invention machine," Bezos wrote in a letter to investors this month. The Echo shows what happens when Amazon achieves that goal. Bezos declined an interview request to discuss the speaker's development, but 10 current and former Amazon employees agreed to talk, mostly on the condition of anonymity because they hadn't been authorized to do so by the company. This is the story of what they built.

Posted by at April 24, 2016 6:49 PM